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  Lidia Vianu - Director of CTITC (CENTRE FOR THE TRANSLATION AND INTERPRETATION OF THE CONTEMPORARY TEXT), Bucharest University, Professor of Contemporary British Literature at the English Department of Bucharest University, Member of the Writers’ Union, Romania.

 

 
 
 
 
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LIDIA VIANU

Poets

 

RUTH FAINLIGHT

 


Writers can have some effect on the world at large

 

 

Interview with RUTH FAINLIGHT (born 2 May 1931), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006

© Lidia Vianu

 


 

LIDIA VIANU: You are a quivering poet. Your lines have a frail and tenacious life, and this paradox makes you, in my mind, what I call a Desperado poet. I do not mean despair. Desperado is a name for the poetry of the last few decades, colloquial, natural, diary-like, contradictory, often defiantly shameless, even more often reluctant to confess or reveal. The Desperadoes make up a movement formed of writers who are similar in dissimilarity. They always deny they belong to any trend and refuse to be classified. To begin with, I wonder if you would accept being one?

RUTH FAINLIGHT:
According to your definition of the label, I can accept that I share the characteristics of what you call a Desperado poet. (Though I must tell you that there seems something faintly comic about that term; the definition of Desperado in the Oxford English Dictionary is: ‘A desperate or reckless man; one ready for any deed of lawlessness or violence’, and the word is almost only ever used to describe the villain in a Western, a ‘cowboy’ movie. I fear you might create an unfortunate impression with that word, which would be a great pity, because your characterisation and description of what you call Desperado poetry, and of my poetry, is extremely perceptive.)


LV.
Two Blue Dresses almost defines your poetry when it mentions, in a different context, ‘The probability/ Of loneliness’. All Desperadoes face life alone, emphatically and indomitably so. They refuse compassion. As a writer, you also master your sympathy. Your poetry is either natural, on the dumb side, or ironical. Is refusal of avowed sensibility an aim for you, or is it just a spontaneous reaction which you do not explain?

RF. I am not conscious of making any effort to suppress expression of emotions.

I do not understand, nor exactly agree with, what you say here: for example: that my poetry is natural. For me, poetry is a highly conscious and self-aware – though not necessarily self-conscious – art form. (On the other hand, you are right to use the word because since my childhood, writing poetry has been a natural activity for me.) But I want to make it quite clear that I distrust the blurting outpourings of ‘spontaneous’ or ‘poetic’ poetry. When students or young poets proudly tell me that they do not work on their ‘poems’ because they do not want to lose the first ‘inspiration’ – as if they feared to brush the colour off the butterfly’s wing – I try to explain that to make a poem sound simple and inevitable requires a great deal of time, thought, knowledge and effort. I work on a poem for days, weeks, sometimes months before I can begin to think it has come close to what I want and hope it to be. Almost all my poems go through many drafts. And sometimes years later I see that something needs to be changed, sharpened or simplified. There are poems of mine which have been published in four different versions: the first, in a magazine or periodical; the second in a book-length collection of my poems. The third version would be included in my first Selected Poems, and the fourth, in the revised and enlarged Selected Poems published in 1995. And if the opportunity arose in the future, I wonder if I could resist the temptation?

When you say my poetry is dumb, I assume that you mean something like mute or inarticulate – not stupid, as in American usage! I find this description difficult to relate to my work – or in fact to any literary product. How can verbal expression be inarticulate? Writing about inarticulate people is extremely difficult! What could be more ‘artful’ than a Hemingway story about such characters?

Ironical – sometimes.


LV. Vertical is a poem which, you say, sets you ‘free from definition’ by summing up your major themes: ‘Jew, poet, woman.’ You do have an air of heroic verticality in everything you write. I have a feeling you place that before the craft of poetry, which you take for granted and would rather keep unnoticed. Your poetry is subtle and persistent. What comes first for you as a poet: atmosphere, idea, music, sympathy?

RF. No, I do not take the craft of poetry for granted. Poetry is the expression of strong feeling, of course – but the medium for this expression is language, words, and the more skill and experience the artist has in the use of the chosen medium, the better she is able to express and convey the inspiration which motivates her. I suppose that of the four alternatives you offer, I would choose music.


LV. The Demonstration mentions your ‘frankness’. You do strike the reader by the fervour with which you ‘open’ yourself (your word again). You do it, paradoxically again, both discreetly and vehemently. You have the strength of frailty, which is fiercer than blind strength. Do you derive it from your honesty versus the blank page? Is your honesty a manner of writing, a way of being, an essential of life?

RF. I hope I am honest in my life; but the honesty of the artist is not necessarily or directly connected to this quality. Honesty with regard to the work, the use of and respect for the medium – words, in the case of a poet – is essential.


LV. My Position in the History of the Twentieth Century is a disarming offer of true life to the mouth of greedy poetry. You offer yourself: ‘I am not troubled because most people are taller./ Eyes always meet on the same level.’ You mention the ‘yellow star’ and your ‘good fortune’ which took you ‘far from the Holocaust.’ We have already stepped into the 21st century. You end the poem with: ‘...what seemed most private and unique in me/ I find dependent on my place and time.’ Do your priorities change with the times? Do your themes adapt to age and ages? You are very nimble in your emotions. Are you trying to transfer this nimbleness to the kind of poetry you write? Do you set out deliberately to innovate this old craft?

RF. Yes, I believe that a careful reader can see that my themes have altered and developed with the passage of time. I also think that my command of the medium has improved (I hope this is true) – though of course, the basic, characteristic voice remains unchanged.

I did not set out deliberately to innovate the craft of poetry – but have always tried to write as well as possible, to improve my technical skills, because the more fluent one is – like an athlete trained to the full stretch of her potential – the more possible it is to express the most subtle perceptions and emotions. To me, the possibilities of form, structure and subject in the English language are limitless, and the more I read of English poetry, and poetry in other languages, whether in the original or in translation, the vaster and more boundless the field of poetry becomes.


LV. I think I can detect several Eliotian echoes in your poems, though I may be wrong, because you hide it very well. One of them is The Cumaean Sibyl I, II. I shall quote the second, because it is a summary of The Waste Land, to my mind: ‘Because she forgot to ask for youth/ when Apollo gave her as many years/ as grains of dust in her hand, this sibyl/ personifies old age: and yet/ those withered breasts can still let down/ celestial milk to one who craves/ redemption: a dry tree, not a green/ the emblem of salvation.’ Strange how you can hum Eliot’s music of private images and yet be totally yourself and belong to another age. You beat Eliot at his own game. Is Eliot a model? Who else is? What is your relationship with the previous poetic age, that of the stream of consciousness?

RF. Eliot was very important to me as a young poet, and I am sure that certain of his rhythms etc. can be detected in my work, particularly the earlier poems. Another poet I studied as a young woman was Robert Graves. Both of them felt a deep connection to the Classical World, which I share.

Eliot was an influence on everyone of my generation but later it became more interesting for me to study the poets who had influenced him: the classical Latin poets, Milton, the English Metaphysical poets, and of course the French 19th century poets such as Baudelaire, Corbière, the Symbolists, etc etc. As to other poets who have influenced me: probably every good poet I read opens my eyes to new ways of saying things, and of looking at and thinking about the world. This has happened all my life and, I am happy to say, still does.


LV. It Must is one of the many poems haunted by old age. Your sensibility is so fresh. You rely on your emotions and your poetry to keep you young. Writing is your strength. A Desperado manages to look like a citadel even when ‘hopelessness’ (your word, again) rages. Do you write in order to feel/ or because you feel strong?

RF. I think that as I have grown older, I have written more poems about age – which is not unusual. I don’t think about being, or feeling, strong – although when I feel I have succeeded in expressing something honestly and skillfully, I do feel happy, which is always strengthening!


LV. Divination by Hair is a remarkable poem, at the same time helpless and aggressive, bitter and sweet, weak and tough. You pull out your white hairs in front of the mirror, but: ‘Sooner or later I’ll have to choose whether/ to be bald or white.’ Your irony silences the grief. That is a very Desperado feature. What do you expect the reader’s reaction to be? How would you describe your ideal reader?

RF. My ideal reader? I have never thought about that! Someone who can hear my voice in the poem, and who will understand my references and metaphors.

I am interested in your comment about ‘Divination by Hair’ — that ‘(Your) irony silences the grief.’ That particular poem is an example of my use of irony; and yes, you have understood what I want the poem to do. Thank you.


LV. The same poem states: ‘I fear/ the mask more than the skull beneath.’ Unlike most Desperadoes, you do not wear a mask in your poems. You are disarmingly yourself, and the naturalness, untainted by poetic conventions, becomes your craft. Your major emotion is not fear, but the need to survive. You write forcefully, although the result looks like lace. You are a forceful ironist whose theme is fading femininity. Are you a feminist in beliefs? I would rather say you could not be farther from it, but your answer will be a more convincing statement, one way or the other.

RF. From early childhood I have been a feminist, in that I have always insisted that women and men are equal, should have equal rights under the law, equal pay, equal opportunities, etc. My earliest memories include being infuriated by men who denied this – and were usually very amused by my opinions. This is the definition of an old-fashioned feminist, I know. But I would never say that I am not a feminist, or take an anti-feminist position – and I am intrigued that you write that in your opinion ‘you could not be farther from it’.

Feminism. I think this is a question of definitions of femininity. It’s true that I am not the sort of radical campus feminist you so dislike.


LV. My Rings is a poem of helpless sadness: ‘On my right hand since then/ I’ve always worn the ring/ my father and I chose/ as my twenty-first birthday present./ On my left hand, these months/ since her death. my mother’s ring:/ the engagement ring he bought her/ half a century ago,/ and gave to me,/ after the funeral./...//I spread my hands on the desk./ Prominent tendons and veins/ on the back, like hers;/ red worn skin of the palm/ that chaps and breaks/ so easily, inherited/ from my father. Even without/ the rings, the flesh of my hands/ is their memorial./ No need for anything/ more formal. Not gold/ nor platinum and precious stones/ can serve as well/ as these two orphaned hands.’ Your emotions are coated in a wrapping of decency, but they rage inside the poem. The strong desire to restrain the grief while constantly talking about it is typically Desperado. You run from yourself and hope the reader will find you as you do not want to confess you are. How about critics? Have they found you out? What should a critic do in order to bring out what is most important in your poetry?

RF.
I wrote My Rings after the deaths of both my parents, who died within ten weeks of each other. It was a hard time for me. I think your analysis of the poem is very acute.


LV. Usually Dry-Eyed ought to be looked upon as a Desperado credo: ‘Tears make one impotent. Anger is needed.’ Like many novelists contemporary with you, deep down, in the obscure, unverbalized but detectable meaning of your lines, you are angry. What are the roots of this mood? Is it a reaction against the menace of naked sensibility running away with your words, or does it work as a kind of poetic suspense, which sets the reader on the right track in the quest for the poet?

RF. So much makes me angry – much of it political in the sense that relations between the sexes are aspects of the political, and the exploitative relationship between different groups in society and different countries is political. Any form of cruelty makes me angry. But anger is not the best response – it is destructive for the one who feels it. I try to channel my anger: sometimes into action (for example, I am a member of the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN), or into my writing – because I do believe (or hope) that writers can have some effect on the world at large.


LV. Handbag is a masterpiece of concentrated narrative and lyricism: ‘My mother’s old leather handbag,/ crowded with letters she carried/ all through the war. The smell/ of my mother’s handbag: mints/ and lipstick and Coty powder./ The look of those letters, softened/ and worn at the edges, opened,/ read, and refolded so often./ Letters from my father. Odour/ of leather and powder, which ever/ since then has meant womanliness,/ and love, and anguish, and war.’ As you advance in years, your poetry becomes firmer and clearer, richer. This short poem equals a whole novel. It includes most of your themes. I shall just choose one, which I have not yet pried into: the war and the holocaust. Did they leave any traces in you, or just in your fund of memories? Do your fears, of age, of loss, of solitude, of failure, have anything to do with that legacy coming from your parents?

RF. I am fortunate enough not to have had direct experience of the Holocaust, nor did my immediate family. But of course, being Jewish, it affected me profoundly.

The fears you question here: age, loss, solitude, failure; surely these fears are common to all humanity? The poet perhaps feels more intensely, and is able to express more articulately, the basic emotions whether of fear or joy shared by everyone. But I have always believed that I am quite ‘normal’ in my reactions and responses, and that they are much the same as everyone else’s – and it is this belief which gives me the confidence to continue writing (and I hope, gives strength to my work).


LV. To end this interview, what do you expect of poetry and how do you expect criticism of poetry to behave? What question have you always wanted to be asked by an interviewer yet have not been, yet?

RF. We shall have to continue this interview process for me to arrive at the knowledge of ‘the question I have always wanted to be asked by an interviewer yet have not been, yet’.

What do I expect of poetry? Hard to answer this question. All we know of the entire past and of everyone who ever lived is what has been recorded and remembered in literature. That testimony, that bearing of witness – not necessarily or only witness of great historical events, but also and equally importantly, of the smallest, simplest, most private aspects of human life – has been and I hope will continue to be the purpose of poetry and all forms of literature.


2003

 

 

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